We start this October by talking to you about music with Glenn Gould.
Beyond the worldwide recognition of his interpretation of Bach Goldberg Variations, almost everyone knows Glenn Gould today.
More than thirty years after his death today, the one who had little taste for media hysteria has become more famous than all the greats of the genre. The admirers manifest a real cult, in countless forms: films, programs, books, conferences.
Today we dedicate a short article to him, but it remains that Gould was the first musician to give the recording a real philosophical dimension, very far from the ephemeral mirages of his career.
Glenn Gould’s musical learning
Glenn Hébert Gould was born on September 25, 1932 in Toronto to a pianist mother and violinist father. From his mother Florence he must have learned the piano and music before reading and writing (legend has it that he was able to read music at the age of three).
He owes his father the construction of a special chair (which we will talk about later), foldable and very low, which he will carry with him throughout his life, to the desperation of the engineers at Columbia: as he got older it began to creak more than due. And then Gould hummed every time he played the piano.
At the age of five Glenn Gould composed his first pieces (but his Quartet op.1 dates back to 1956). At the same time, he continued his studies with Frederick Silvester and the theory with Leo Smith. It was as an organist that he gave his first concert, in 1943. He was therefore only 11 years old, like so many precocious talents we met in this blog. Let’s think, for example, in literature, of Arthur Rimbaud or Oscar Wilde.
Let’s go back to music with Glenn Gould. Also in his early teens, he played Beethoven’s Third Concerto with the Toronto Orchestra. Every year he spent the summer near Lake Sincoe, 145 km north of the city. His piano follows his moves. He was the first pianist to play for Canadian television (in 1952 and always in his chair), the first North American musician to never eat vegetables (“Vegetables are cursed,” he said).
For Glenn Gould, his chair was very important. Anyone who has seen a video of the pianist will have noticed his sitting position very low, his eyes slightly raised from the keyboard. This unusual position, compared to a conventional position, offers the advantage of increasing the sensation of pressing the key. By flexing the wrist more to play the notes, the ligaments of the fingers are stressed much more than usual. Playing in “percussion” mode, like what is found in jazz music, this position does not seem very practical.
Some people think that thanks to this low position, Glenn Gould created a very special energy and physical communication with his piano. A sort of ecstasy that puts him in direct communication with the sound vibration. Gould rather reminded of the attitude of his teacher (Alberto Guerrero) that when he performed some piano exercises he pressed his shoulders, thus forcing him to lean forward.
For some of his friends, this chair would have indirect links to his childhood; because of her mother who taught him to play on her lap and because of his father who built it. Perhaps he was looking for a deep emotional contact through this object, a nostalgia capable of creating a link between the past and the present time. When art is an artist, perhaps it does not create a sort of continuous and invisible line in the different stages of life ranging from childhood to adulthood?
Glenn Gould’s diverse careers
In 1955, after his acclaimed debut in the United States, he recorded his first album for Columbia: The Goldberg Variations, and signed an exclusive twenty-five-year contract with this company. He then lived, until 1964, the life of a concert artist: recitals, tours abroad, recordings. He co-directs the Stratford Festival, shows himself to be one of the most ardent defenders of the music of the second Vienna School and accompanies the contralto Maureen Forrester, the blessed. In 1954 he decided to leave the stage for good. This obviously happened not because he didn’t know how to play in public!
From that date Gould made his career explode: he continued to record a large number of records (more than eighty, almost one and a half million copies sold) but he also wrote a lot: almost forty articles, some very long, like the study he dedicated to dodecaphonists, the one he wrote about Schoenberg, about the future of electronics, about Stokowski, about Beethoven, etc.,
He has regularly participated in numerous radio broadcasts, directed documentaries and shot with Bruno Monsaingeon nearly ten television films that are already considered classics of the genre. He has written the soundtrack for several films, such as GR Hill’s Slaughterhouse 5.
At the end of his life, Glenn Gould began one last career. That of the conductor. He recorded, at the head of an orchestra formed for the occasion, a version for chamber orchestra of Siegfried Idyll, by Wagner.
Glenn Gould had the life of a creator. He did not die of syphilis, nor hanged from a lamppost, nor from gangrene in Marseille, but of a stroke, in a hospital bed, in Toronto, on October 4, 1982.
After Gould’s death
The year following Glenn Gould’s death on October 4, 1982, Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard wrote The Unsuccessful, a fictional novel starring the Canadian pianist, which reveals how important Gould was in mass culture. Ten years later, Glenn Gould’s biography was the subject of a critically acclaimed film, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould by François Girard.
In 2015 a comic biography of the musician was published: Glenn Gould, a life out of time, the work of the French illustrator Sandrine Revel.
In addition to the acknowledgments and tributes, after Glenn Gould’s death many anecdotes still circulated about him. Most are false or exaggerated, all taken out of context.
His gloves and his way of warming his hands before playing were made fun of. Actually which pianist would prefer to play with cold hands? Especially if in Canada?
It was alleged that he refused to “see the people,” to “shake hands.” The press made fun of the sedatives and stimulants he was taking. Billions of Valium tablets, billions of Cogitum ampoules are sold in the world, so what? A prominent reporter wrote that Glenn Gould lived in an underground fort guarded by security guards – one really wonders who should be locked up.
Legend has it that Gould was emotionally unstable, bipolar, probably autistic, appeared out of nowhere, whose appearance on the music scene would have been like thunder. The reality is quite different. The reality is that of a complex being who, despite being a true eccentric and showing exceptional skills, was much more than what is said to be the product of time and the environment in which he was born.